Competition LO17887

DHurst1046 (
Sat, 25 Apr 1998 20:17:02 EDT

Replying to LO17865 --

Hi Bob,

In a message dated 98-04-23 21:54:35 EDT, you write:

> I've been dismayed at the tendency in some parts of OD and Organizational
>Learning to create polarities between concepts like these, labeling one
>good, one bad. This also has happened as dichotomies have been created
>between directive and participative behavior, control and freedom, Theory
>X and Theory Y, hierarchy and flat networked organizations, etc.

One of the most useful ways of understanding the relationship between the
concepts of competition and cooperation is to use hierarchy theory, the
best known articulation of which is probably Arthur Koestler's concept of
a holon. A holon is an entity which, like the Roman god Janus, has two
"faces." One looks down to the holon's own identity, it's individuality,
the preservation of which requires it to be self-assertive, to compete.
The other face looks up to its affiliative needs, membership in a larger
collectivity, the maintenance of which requires collaboration. So to
survive as a semi-autonomous entity the holon has to be both
self-assertive and self-effacing, but not in the same context or the same

The reason that collaboration sounds "higher" is that in a hierarchically
organized system it always is at a higher level. As Lakoff and Johnson
suggest (in "Metaphors We Live By"), our language is heavily based on our
physical experience in the real world. "Up" is good (heaven is up); when
when we feel bad we are "down" (hell is down!) As the higher member of the
pair, collaboration creates the arena for competition. Or, to put it
another way, when competitors collaborate they form a larger, more
inclusive (the complexity people would say "more complex") entity. So
firms compete fiercely with each other every day, but collaborate in
industry associations to preserve the industry framework within which they
compete. Baseball teams compete with each other, but collaborate to
preserve the game in All Star contests etc.

In nature competion is never unlimited across the levels: ruthlessness at
one level is always checked at another. I came across a neat illustration
of this the other day (in T.F.H. Allen "Hierarchy Theory", I forget the
co-author's name). Ladybugs are ruthless killers of aphids - put them in a
population of aphids and they will wipe it out. How do aphids survive? It
turns out that at the next level up ladybugs have trouble detecting aphid
populations in the vast space they inhabit - so it's hit and miss at that
level. With lions it's the reverse situation. Lions are excellent
detectors of prey populations on the African savannah, but they are
inefficient killers. They can only go after the young, the old or the sick
with any confidence. Healthy mature animals escape quite easily. So here
we have this same interplay between levels - efficiency at one level being
checked at another so that variety is maintained.

There is a similar relationship between control and freedom in
hierarchically organized systems - discipline (at a lower level) is
necessary for freedom (at a higher level). Once again freedom, like
collaboration, sounds "good" because it's "up": discipline is "down." But
without routines we and our organizations are free only to "fight fires",
to face chaos. For the same reason, only self- disciplined people can be
truly "empowered." The discipline has to be at one level or another and
the lower the better because it means more freedom above. But the two
need each other: freedom without control is impossible, control without
freedom is pointless.

Hope that this helps,
David Hurst


DHurst1046 <>

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